If God knows everything that we will ever feel, think, say, or do, then do we have free will? It is certainly hard to imagine how we might be capable of freely deciding anything if all of our decisions are already known. But it may be possible to reconcile free will and “destiny” or “fate”. Let’s unpack the titular question and see where it leads.
Let’s start by addressing an assumption in the question. Is God all-knowing? I do not recall any particular verse where God attributes this characteristic to Himself, it is typically believers (Christians in this case) that apply omniscience to God. However, for the purposes of this article, let’s assume this is correct and God is omniscient.
We also have a hidden assumption in this question and it is actually quite difficult to discern. In the question, we have two characters; God and Man. The assumption that we are making, without realizing it, is that God and mankind experience time in the same way. I do not believe we can accept this as a premise for the question for the following reason: mankind currently believes that time, as a force, began with the universe. If this is the case, and we believe that God created the universe, God must have created time as well. This must mean that God exists outside of time. Clearly this changes our perspective of the question.
I am going to leave that thought for a moment and move on to some definitions to ensure that we are all on the same page.
- Having infinite awareness, understanding, and insight
- Possessed of universal or complete knowledge
The first definition is, in my opinion, the most accurate definition of the term “omniscient” when applied to God. This means that God, as a being existing outside of time, is capable of being aware of everything happening in every place, understanding of all things in our reality (being the creator of our reality), and having insight into each and every being in our reality (again, being the creator of each being and reality as a whole). This definition does not require that God know everything that there is to know, merely that He is aware of, has an understanding of, and insight into everything in our reality.
The second definition is unfortunately the meaning that is presumed to be intended when referring to God’s omniscience. This definition requires that God know absolutely everything that there is to know, otherwise He would not possess “complete” knowledge as the definition requires. As far as I am aware, this is not a claim that is made within the Bible, so I will move forward with the understanding that when using the term “omniscient”, I am utilizing the first definition.
- A theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws
In regards to determinism, I think we can assume that we are referring to the idea that, based on prior events, any action that would be taken in the future can be determined. This determination can be made by considering the following things about an individual:
- Biological makeup
- All past experiences
- Full understanding of which experiences are remembered consciously by the individual
- Full understanding of the subconscious impacts of each experience
There are likely countless missing items for this list, but the end result is that we can use our understanding of the world around us and our knowledge of a specific person to predict how they will behave in any situation. The inevitable thought here is that this means that we have no free will. This is usually what is meant when “determinism” is referred to philosophically. Our actions can be determined without deviation.
- Freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
If all of our actions can be accurately predicted, how could we say that we have “control” over our decisions? I don’t believe we could make that claim without some additional information. Just because our actions can be predicted, does not necessarily mean that we lack free will. I believe that it would depend on the “mechanism” used to “predict” our actions. If we are able to reduce our actions to a mathematical formula based on the criteria listed thus far, then we do not have free will. We are admitting that there is no way we could have made any other decision in any given scenario. We are implying that our genetic makeup simply would not allow it.
The above line of reasoning is pretty easy to follow but, as they say, the devil is in the details. Supposing that I am choosing between something that brings me satisfaction and something that does not, it will be pretty easy to predict my decision so long as the predictor and I have the same definition of satisfaction. But let’s presume that I am deciding between two parking spaces equally distant from my destination. I have pulled forward and am preparing to back up into the one on the left purely out of habit. My passenger asks me if I think it matters which parking spot I choose. Up to this point in time, I have not consciously thought about which parking space I would pull into. I merely saw a spot and prepared to pull in. Now that I am consciously thinking about which spot to choose, what things might impact my decision?
- Distance from my destination
- We already determined that both spots are equally distant from my destination. Neither spot will increase/decrease my walking distance.
- Additional cars surrounding the spaces in question
- Let’s imagine that this parking lot is populated with blue 1998 Honda Civics. Each car adjacent to my two spaces are perfectly parked and do not offer any noticeable benefits from parking by them.
Given this scenario, how do I decide which spot to park in? There is no discernible advantage to me, or to society that could drive me to choose a particular spot. And yet I will undoubtedly choose one of them, or ask my passenger which spot they prefer, or even just flip a coin. Personally, at this point I would start backing up and whichever spot my car was pointed most towards is the one I will pull into because I don’t care and it does not matter at all. But it is still a decision that can have a large and profound impact on my life. As has happened to me in the past, my car could be totaled by a drunk driver attempting to park next to me. You could say that I “chose” not to choose and did so because my genetic makeup could not conceive of any reason to choose one space over the other.
Now we need to account for the person that does choose, very deliberately, between the two spaces. As I am backing up, my passenger asks me why am choosing the space that I am backing into. Obviously, I have no answer as my genetic makeup will not allow me to value one spot over the other. My passenger, however, is a different story. He insists that I should park in the other space and is angry that I am chose the one that I did.
The challenge here is not to explain why either of us chose the way that we did, it is to explain why one person values such an indistinguishable choice over another, even after someone has already made a decision. If we are arguing that genetic makeup is to blame, then we must ask what value is provided by deciding to disagree with such an arbitrary decision. Wouldn’t it be better for the passenger to allow me to park? We could move on with our lives sooner. We have established that there is no personal advantage to either space. There is no societal advantage to arguing over either space. If our actions are determined through evolutionary processes training our subconscious to value self-preservation first and species-preservation second, shouldn’t it follow that we would avoid disputes of such arbitrary and meaningless decisions that yield no net benefit to us as individuals or as a society? Perhaps I am missing something related to an animalistic desire to prove dominance over each other.
I think examples like this show that we can choose to endanger the species, while gaining no benefit to us as individuals. This is not a logical choice, it is not rational, and it has no grounds for explanation via naturalistic sources. A decision like this seems to entirely contradict what one may expect from naturalistic determinism. So many of our decisions are made on “autopilot” that I think it is possible to accurately predict a great deal of them based on the criteria we have spoken about. But when we actually pause and deliberately choose something, I think the jury is still out on whether or not that is free will.
Does God Determine Our Fate?
If God knows what we will do throughout our lives, does that mean He controls our decisions? There are some verses in the Bible where something like this is implied but they refer to specific people, in specific scenarios, and the meaning of these verses have been debated for quite some time. So we will have to draw our own conclusions about how to interpret these things.
What I would like to address is whether or not it is possible for God to know what we will do before we have actually decided. If we apply the first definition of omniscient, then we have established that God has a full understanding of the universe He created, as well as the people in it. He is aware of what is happening anywhere in that universe as well. So given what I said earlier about how we tend to make most of our decisions without conscious thought, I would imagine it is quite easy for God to accurately predict our actions. But that isn’t what we were trying to decide is it? No, we want to know how God could know our decisions before we do. So its time we took a look at the “mechanism” God has at His disposal. Time.
We have determined that time is something that was created, or started, with the universe. It follows that if God created the universe, and time was created with the universe, that God must exist outside of time. If God is eternal, in the true sense of the word, then God must exist outside of time.
Time is not eternal. If time existed eternally prior to today, then how did today ever happen? There was an eternity of time before today, it couldn’t have ended so that today could begin. Why didn’t we arrive at today yesterday? Maybe yesterday was too soon and we needed another day to get to today. Or tomorrow was too long and so we arrived at today, today. These musings seem silly, but they suggest that time is finite. There are other evidences as well and I may delve into them at some other time.
If time is finite, and God exists outside of it, is it reasonable to assume that God does not experience time the same way that we do? I believe so, as it would not logically follow that God would be subject to His own rules for the universe. What does this mean? We can only speculate. If we assume that time is not a legitimate “force” in the universe, but rather a method of experiencing the universe, and we agree that God experiences the universe differently than we do, I think we can make the case that God may experience all of time simultaneously. If this is true, then God may “know” what we will choose in the future because He is experiencing that future simultaneously with our moment of indecision.
If I am able to consciously make a decision without influence, through rational thought, based on my own emotions, knowledge, and experiences, then isn’t that free will? If God has experienced our future, does that mean our choices are deterministic? God would not need to know our past experiences in order to experience our future, so this leaves the debate largely open as to whether or not humanity has free will. But I think we can safely say that God may not require a deterministic universe in order to be “all-knowing”.
Hi, I’m James Dusenbery, the Founder/Lead Editor at CanonOfReason.com. I have a deep passion for the Bible and am constantly studying one part or another. In addition to an interest in theology and Christian apologetics, I also love philosophy. My podcast and website merge these interests together to create a unique experience that you will not find anywhere else.
Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion and other forms of undue influence. This is the operational definition used when evaluating moral and legal responsibility. The bank robber points a gun at the bank teller and says, “Fill this bag with money or I’ll shoot you”. The threat of harm forces the teller to submit her will to the will of the robber. When she fills the bag with money and gives it to the robber, no one will blame her, because she was not acting of her own free will. The robber, on the other hand, deliberately chose to rob the bank, and is held responsible for his actions.
It’s a simple concept, quite unlike the so-called “philosophical” definition that you have embraced: “a choice free of reliable cause and effect”. The philosophical definition is an oxymoron, a self-contradiction, in that any freedom that we have, to do anything at all, requires reliable cause and effect. Reliable causation is the very mechanism of all our freedoms. Thus, freedom requires a deterministic universe. Thus, the philosophical definition is nonsense.
Time is a matter of where stuff is. My house is located on the Earth, a spinning planet. In 12 hours the Earth will have rotated half way, and my house will be on the other side. If it’s night now, then it will be daylight then, because my house will be facing the Sun. We use clocks to help us synchronize events, which are also about where stuff is. I have a doctor’s appointment next week and it requires the doctor and I to be in the same room at the same time. Time is about where stuff is. Time travel is impossible because it would require stuff to be in two places at once.
There is no location that is “outside of time”. As soon as you have events involving stuff moving, you are inside of time. The creation story, for example, has events prior to the creation of the Earth.
In regards to free will, you should know that all of my definitions are straight from the dictionary (Websters I believe) so they are not my definitions. In my article, I refute the idea that we do not have free will. While I believe that you are accurately portraying a legal use of the concept, I think you are missing the point of determinism. Yes, all of our actions our dependent on prior actions. I have to get into bed in order to get out of bed. I have to be in a bed in order to decide whether or not to get out of bed. But, our my decisions fully and deliberately decided by me, in a conscious fashion? This is what it means to question free will. I will use your bank teller example. When the teller is told to fill the bag with money, she has a decision to make. In that exact moment, she can do anything that is within her capacity. She can duck behind the counter, turn and run, press an alarm button, quack like a duck, do the hokey pokey, and so on. But she did not choose to do any of those things, instead she chose to comply. This is a completely rational decision, and I agree that no one would blame her for it. However, the question of free will is not whether or not she made a smart decision given the circumstances, it is a question of whether or not she was capable of making any other decision at all, regardless of the circumstances. Is she physically capable of making a different decision in that moment? Did she actually evaluate the situation and decide that handing over the money was the appropriate decision, or did she simply do what the chemical and electrical signals in her body and brain told her to do? I believe, and outlined in my article, that we are conscious, rational agents acting intentionally in the world. There are some that believe we have no conscious role in our decisions and that consciousness itself is an illusion created entirely as a byproduct of our evolutionary progress and that we have no more control over our consciousness than we do our reaction to a hot stove. There are also studies that indicate this is true.
As far as time goes, perhaps we should again begin with a definition: the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole.
Given this definition, if all of the universe sprang into existence at the moment of the big bang, then what existed prior? The answer to that depends on your theological views, because the big bang theory says nothing existed prior to that. The progress of existence started in that single moment.
Additionally, time is not a matter of where stuff is. We measure time by finding things that move at a consistent speed and use those things to follow a system of measuring time that we agree upon. We have no real understanding of time as a force. Our only understanding of it is derived from our experience of time and we all experience time differently depending on what is happening in our mind. I propose that time is actually a fundamental force in our universe and that we experience time in a way that is unique to us as humans. I would imagine that a dog experiences time in a different way. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/small-animals-live-in-a-slow-motion-world/
If we experience time differently based on our biological makeup and lifespans, and if time truly started with the universe, then it follows that whatever created the universe does not experience time. If we then decide that whatever created the universe is a sentient being, God, then we must assume that this being designed the universe He created. If time was created with the universe and God created the universe, then it follows that God created time. In this paragraph alone, I have taken a massive leap from science to theology, so I won’t go any further quite yet.
Loved your response. I believe I would be labelled a “compatibilist”. I agree with your statement that we are conscious acting agents and I also agree that our choices are deterministic. Given the same bank teller as she was at that moment, under the same circumstances, with the same purposes (staying alive) and reasons (if I comply, I will live, and if I do the hokey pokey, I’ll most likely get shot), she will always make the same choice.
To me, there is no contradiction between the fact that her choice was reliably caused (determinism) and that it was reliably caused by her moral evaluation that her life was more valuable than the money. Her choice was coerced, thus not free, but the robber’s choice was deliberate and free of coercion or other undue influence, so the robber is held responsible for the stolen money.
Since our freedom to do anything at all requires reliable cause and effect, there can be no contradiction between freedom and causation. Most ordinary people take both reliable cause and effect and free will for granted. They observe both phenomena all day long, every day. I believe their intuition is correct.
There is a lot of nonsense about everything being explainable by the laws of physics. But, while physics is quite capable of explain why a cup of water flows downhill, it is completely at a loss to explain why a similar cup of water, heated, and mixed with a little coffee, hops into a car and goes grocery shopping. Luckily, we have the Life sciences and the Social sciences to make up for the gaps.
I think there are three separate mechanisms of caution: physical, biological, and rational. Inert objects behave passively in response to physical forces. But biological organisms behave in a “goal-directed” or “purposeful” way to survive, thrive, and reproduce. With the evolution of intelligence, we get the ability to imagine, evaluate, and choose, which is where free will comes in.
To rescue determinism, we can presume that each mechanism is reliable within its own domain, and that every event is the necessary result of some specific combination of physical, biological, and/or rational causation.
My cosmology lacks theology these days. The Big Bang did not create the world out of nothing. Something exploded. We think that prior to the Big Bang there was a super-massive “black hole”, a dense ball of matter that continued to accrue stuff until it reached a tipping point and exploded outward. Science tells us that there are black holes in the centers of most of the galaxies we observe, accruing matter from anything close enough. These might some day gather together all of the matter in the universe, and come together as a new super-dense ball of matter that explodes into the next Big Bang. So, lacking a creator, I assume that “stuff-in-motion” is eternal, and has been condensing and expanding repeatedly for ever. (This is but one of many theories see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_fate_of_the_universe )
I don’t think that Einstein’s block of time, in which every time simultaneously exists, is real. There’s just one set of stuff, and it is constantly moving and changing.
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